‘Irreplaceable’: will Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s animation auteur, ever retire? | Hayao Miyazaki

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It could have been the perfect send-off – recognition at the Academy Awards of the artistry of Japan’s peerless animator Hayao Miyazaki.

The moment The Boy and the Heron was named the winner of best animated feature in Los Angeles last weekend gave Japan a chance to reflect on Miyazaki’s towering influence, and contemplate whether the 83-year-old is truly finished making films.

Studio Ghibli, where Miyazaki has performed his alchemy since the mid-1980s, had barely cleared a space for its second Oscar when talk turned to his future. His no-show at the 2003 ceremony was reportedly a protest against the US-led war in Iraq, but his recent absence was put down to a reluctance to travel – presumably due to his advanced years.

The success at the Oscars of The Boy and the Heron – Miyazaki’s most personal treatment of the horrors of war – saw him become the oldest director ever nominated for best animated feature. It was only the second hand-drawn animation to win in the category; the first, of course, was Spirited Away, which earned Miyazaki his first Oscar in 2003.

Neither Miyazaki nor his old friend and Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki was present at the ceremony. At a press conference in Tokyo, Suzuki declared himself deliriously happy. His collaborator was absent but Suzuki relayed a typically restrained response from the auteur, who described the award as “good”.

Animated friends: Studio Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki, left, and Miyazaki, at a news 2013 conference in Tokyo announcing Miyazaki’s previous retirement. Photograph: Koji Sasahara/AP

The thought of a complete break from the company he co-founded in 1985 appears as unappealing to the man himself as to his legions of fans in Japan, where 95% of people aged 16-69 say they have watched at least one of his films.

Miyazaki has announced his retirement at least three times to date, only to backtrack once his mind and body had recovered from the exertions of conceptualising and hand-drawing most of the frames in a feature-length film himself.

Rumours are swirling that he will return to work yet again, possibly for a short animation. “I think he’ll retire when he can no longer hold a pencil,” said Susan Napier, a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University in the US and the author of Miyazakiworld: a Life in Art. “The man was not made for retirement. His work is the most important thing in his life.”

Japan has much to lose when Miyazaki’s age inevitably catches up with him. While the world rides the Hallyu wave of South Korean popular culture, Japan would have struggled to project its own cultural treasures without Ghibli’s output. “Miyazaki is a national treasure, but he’s also an international treasure,” Napier said. “He is a genuine auteur, and his work is utterly unique and original so, unfortunately, he is irreplaceable.”

He will leave a legacy of 2D journeys into fantasy worlds of strange creatures and stunning locations, and a worldview informed by his experience living through conflict and postwar austerity. Like many Japanese of his generation, Miyazaki is a pacifist who opposes attempts by conservative politicians to revise the country’s war-renouncing constitution. The Boy and the Heron, for example, opens with Mahito Maki, the 12-year-old protagonist, losing his mother in the aerial bombardment of Tokyo in March 1945, in which an estimated 100,000 people died.

The genuine affection Miyazaki and his output inspire overseas is not always reflected at home, where he has drawn criticism for his leftwing politics. In 2015, supporters of the then prime minister, Shinzo Abe, were angered by Miyazaki’s response to a speech in which the conservative politician said Japan should not have to continue apologising for its wartime conduct in Asia. The netto uyoku – online far-right activists – came out in force to disparage his 2013 anti-war film The Wind Rises as “anti-Japanese”.

Roland Kelts, the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US, believes Miyazaki’s perfectionism and work ethic will see him wield his pencil once again.

“He literally doesn’t know how to do anything else, and he’s the very best at the one thing he does know how to do,” said Kelts, who describes Miyazaki as Japan’s “undisputed emissary of anime” among overseas audiences who are otherwise uninterested in Japan. “While he would never say it publicly, of course the accolades and box office mean a ton to Miyazaki. He’s a deeply competitive man, which is one of the reasons Ghibli hasn’t been able or willing to groom a successor.”

The Boy and the Heron became the second Studio Ghibli film to win an Oscar after Spirited Away won best animated feature film in 2003. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Miyazaki, Kelts said, was driven by a desire to beat off the competition, especially since the success of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba and Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. “He is staging a fierce comeback,” he added.

In 2013, Miyazaki said he would no longer make feature-length films, citing the difficulty of living up to his own impossibly high standards – an announcement one American critic likened to “an unexpected death notice”. But four years later, Ghibli said its co-founder was coming out of retirement to make what would be “his final film, considering his age”.

The result was The Boy and the Heron, and a reminder of Miyazaki’s role as Japan’s soft-power ambassador. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have played an outsized role in helping Japan project a positive image around the world,” said Frederik L Schodt, an author and translator who has worked on Miyazaki’s interviews and essays.

“Other artists may emerge, but there is currently no one who can step into his shoes, and for whatever reason he has not been able to foster a true successor.”

In a recent documentary aired by the public broadcaster NHK, Miyazaki did not sound like a man contemplating his own professional mortality. Visibly affected by the death, in 2018, of his Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, he said: “The truth about life isn’t shiny, or righteous. It contains everything, including the grotesque. It’s time to create a work by pulling up things hidden deep within myself.”

The Boy and the Heron may prove to have been Miyazaki’s valedictory feature-length work, but he does not appear ready to step away from his suburban Tokyo studio just yet. Given his propensity for talking himself out of retirement, no one might be more relieved than the great animator himself.

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